Shark attacks ripping Port St Johns apart

Port St Johns - Four people have been killed by sharks at the same beach in Port St Johns in the Eastern Cape in the part three years, but the community is divided over whether the municipality should install nets at the popular swimming beach in town.

Dries van der Merwe, the chair of the town's ratepayers association, says holidaymakers are being scared off by the shark attacks and that the municipality has to do something to protect the town's tourist industry, which is its main income generator.

"It's a concern for us," says Van der Merwe.

"Tourists won't come on holiday here if they think that our beaches are unsafe. The municipality has to do something to show that it is trying to ensure the safety of bathers at the main swimming beach.

"But we are divided about this. Some ratepayers are for nets. Others are against them."

The attacks have all taken place at Second Beach, the town's most popular swimming beach in the holiday season.

In the last attack in January, Zama Ndamase, 16, a provincial surfer for Border, was surfing with his brother and other members of the local surf club when he was attacked by what was thought to be a Zambezi shark.

Gerald Mtakati, who used a jet ski to bring Zama's body back to the beach, has retrieved the bodies of all the victims in the past three years. Three of the victims were his lifeguard colleagues.

Lifeguards too scared

"The lifeguards are too scared to swim in the water," he says.

"If someone is in trouble, we rather use a boat or jet ski for the rescue."

Patrick Muchangwe, who works at a backpackers lodge above Second Beach, was working here during the last attack.

"It was terrible," he says. "The municipality has to put in nets.

"The people who get into the water in the holiday time are from rural areas like Lusikisiki and Flagstaff. They don't know about sharks and the ocean.

"They are the ones we have to protect. If we don't, holiday makers will stop coming to Port St Johns. The main reason people come is to swim in the sea."

A local surfer named "Toto" who lives in a village above Second Beach, says he will not get into the water again.

"I'm not surfing," he says. "No ways. I will be eaten. The municipality must do something to reduce the danger."

Zola Hewu, the municipal manager for the Port St Johns municipality, says shark nets are an expensive option for the cash strapped town.

No scientific study

"The people who were attacked were deep in the ocean," he says.

"They were surfers and lifesavers. They were beyond where the shark nets would be.

"Those swimming off the shore are normally in shallow water and they have never been attacked."

There is no scientific study that would show that the beaches would be safer with nets, Hefu says.

"We had a suggestion to have shark nets, but the Umzimvubu River makes it muddy brown and that makes it impossible to spot sharks.

"There are also environmental concerns. It's not simply a matter of putting in nets."

The municipality, he says, is working with the Natal Sharks Board on a study to determine what action to take.

Kathryn Costello, a lodge owner in town, believes the problem comes from the effluent that is flowing into the river.

"The problem is the filth. That brings the fish, which attracts the sharks," she says.

Nets won't work

"One way to reduce the danger of shark attacks is to stop the effluent from being pumped into the river."

Rod Hastier, a Port St Johns resident who worked with the Natal Sharks Board for 16 years, says installing nets was not an option for the municipality.

"Shark nets won't work," he says.

"There are far too many sharks in Port St Johns. There always have been. It's tough, but its a fact of life. Installing nets we will wipe out the sharks and the equipment. It will also kill dolphins, whales and turtles.

"There's no way you can have the safe bathing in Port St Johns that you have in Natal."

Hastier says the solution is to research the behaviour of the Zambezi sharks that have been responsible for the attacks.

"There is a research project on Zambezis underway at the Breede River in the Western Cape.

"Port St Johns needs something similar. We need to understand why the Zambezis disappear in winter for instance. That will help us predict their behaviour a lot better."

Hastier says the municipality is not doing much in creating awareness about the dangers of sharks, but he doesn't blame them.

"The problem is that are also ignorant about shark behaviour. They don't know what to do because they don't have the information.

"The best thing for people to do is not swim deep. Stay out of the water. There are lots of sharks here, so if you live by the sword, you die by the sword."

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